When it comes to college football, nearly every team has an intrastate rivalry. For the last several seasons, the Michigan State University football program has experienced a remarkable transformation. A key marker of this change has been its win streak over rival University of Michigan. The Spartans have beaten the Wolverines four years straight. As a Michigan State alum and Spartan fan, each win has left me grinning ear to ear. Go Green! But this season has me worried, and it’s not because I think our streak against the Wolverines might end.
What bothers me is the climate of rivalry on the Spartan fans’ part. Recently, I’ve noted a mean-spiritedness among some of them. Not so much in the stands as on the streets. And on Facebook. Now I’m all for aggressive competition and I promote my allegiance to Sparty with an enthusiasm that often borders on fanatic. But there’s a difference between competitive digging at an opponent and kicking them when they’re down.
For years that’s what State fans had to endure from a few particularly arrogant Michigan fans. However, when the worm turned and the Wolverines started losing, the venom stopped. Recently it’s begun re-surfacing. Disappointingly, though I suppose not so surprisingly, it has been coming from the Spartans.
A few of weeks ago I read a report where a couple Spartan football players went on Twitter to ridicule and trash-talk Michigan Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson. The Spartan players were appropriately reprimanded by MSU Head Coach Mark Dantonio, who said he expects his team to respect its rival even though it has every reason to brag, given its current four-game winning streak against the Wolverines.
Coach Dantonio deserves high praise and much respect. Through his leadership he has taken a football program I lovingly used to refer to as, ‘the best .500 college football team in America,’ and turned it into a Big Ten title contender, year end and year out. Less than a decade ago the Spartans were forced to endure an average gridiron program but always had the potential to knock off one or two highly regarded teams a year. Now they’re consistent winners. Fans have come to expect it.
While Dantonio’s coaching grit and daring has led the charge to team success, there was an incident that some say sparked the program’s turnaround. It came in 2007 in the form of rather notable comments by Mike Hart, a former Wolverine football standout and NFL player turned Assistant Coach/Running backs for Eastern Michigan University. During a TV post game interview, Hart jokingly referred to Michigan State as being U of M’s ‘Little Brother’.
The comment led to what some now refer to as The Curse of Mike Hart, because the Wolverines have not beaten Michigan State since. For many Spartan fans, coaches and the team, Hart’s statement was a very public slap in the face. Ironically, Hart’s arrogance in that moment served as the fuel that has fired the Spartans to competitive prominence.
Years ago, in response to Mike Hart’s ‘little brother’ comments, Coach Dantonio stated, “Pride comes before the fall.” The interesting thing is that we’ve all seen this scenario play out time and again – on the playing field and possibly in our own lives: one person or group is down and ridiculed, then, when having a turn at being on top assumes the same mean posture.
What causes some downtrodden people, when they get their turn at having power, to get so full of themselves that they go off the deep end and drown in their own prideful words or actions? Is it simply human nature or something else? More to the point, how can we keep it from happening to us?